At the time, my “favourite Irish pub” in Brussels was run by a Moroccan Jew and his Danish girlfriend. I say favorite because it was – by far – the most fake, uniric hostel I’ve ever encountered.
And luckily the market sorted it out because it took a full three months.
I think back to a time around 30 years ago when the ‘authentic Irish pub’ was a global export. It was a bit like Sweden saying its biggest export is Abba.
I have very happily spent more than a decade in Brussels. The Irish pub phenomenon took off a bit more slowly there and I think people were a little less enthusiastic about it at first.
Over the past two decades, the Irish in Brussels, estimated to number around 15,000 in the mid-1990s, have done all sorts of things beyond that EU Bladder – from dentistry to house painting and from burger flipping to engineering, and had their own cozy resort bars and cafes.
You would surely hear the sounds of Seán Ó Sé singing Iníon an Phailitínigh on the stereo and there might even be a copy or two of that Irish Independent or Ireland’s own lying around.
It was a bit like London, New York or Boston, where there was an established Irish population who knew where to meet for a social drink when the opportunity arose.
But the 1990s was the era of phenomenal growth for Irish pubs, with mainland Europe as the main focus.
In the autumn of 1999 there were around 500 in Germany, 300 in Italy and even 300 in the UK – which had had venerable and far more authentic Irish bars for generations.
In June 2000 the 50th Irish Pub was opened in Paris. Irish Ambassador to France Patrick O’Connor said at the time he had served as a young Irish diplomat in Paris in the early 1970s, when not a single Irish bar was operating there.
This is how the Irish Pub came to Brussels. A Donegal man named Brian O’Donnell first went there in the summer of 1989 with his James Joyce.
Then came the Brussels branch of Kitty O’Shea’s, brilliantly run by evergreen Gerry McCarthy. And God knows how many more Irish pubs followed in the next four to five years.
Now there is disagreement among the traveling Irish about whether to go to Irish pubs abroad.
Purists insist this is the death of the holiday experience and a betrayal of our duty to meet and mingle with local people.
That’s a reasonable point: if you’re traveling the world in Irish pubs, you might as well stay at home in your own locale.
But two brief anecdotes will tell you a story against this absolutist mindset.
Years ago a Belgian friend of mine happened to be in a town in Norway on a gloomy and freezing evening in early December. Peering down a side street, he was delighted to see a glowing Guinness sign that led him to an Irish pub where he could find something hot to eat, good beer and people who would chat with him. Secondly, in my own experience, good Irish bars have always been a useful reference point for decent company, local information and a bit of fun. Irish bars have never been my only point of reference – but they should never be dismissed.
Such thoughts surfaced again last week as I drove through Vienna trying to keep up with President Michael D. Higgins, who was on a state visit to Austria.
Vienna still has dozens of Irish pubs, many occupying prominent spots in the streets. Some of these look good, better than others. Some looked more like my old Moroccan and Danish friends had migrated south from Brussels and tried again with a little more consistency but not much more authenticity.
Through a series of accidents before leaving the splendor of Vienna last week I found The Green Room on Hernalser Hauptstrasse, off tram line 43. This is an understated Irish bar reminiscent of the better and earlier Irish overseas pubs.
I found it crowded with people of all nationalities, from Bulgaria to the USA, and especially lots of Viennese drinking good Guinness.
The first real clue that it was Irish was the crossed hurleys pinned to the wall in a discreet corner.
There was plenty of music of all kinds throughout the evening, from blues to Austrian folk to Irish tunes.
Run by Eamon Lowe from Limerick and Michelle Patton from Galway, it reminded me of the value of a good Irish pub in a faraway place, for the locals, Irish visitors and people from all over the world. Vienna’s Green Room is a fun place to restore Irish pub confidence.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/the-irish-pub-can-offer-warmth-and-cheer-as-i-was-reminded-in-vienna-this-past-week-41543608.html The Irish Pub can offer warmth and happiness, as I was reminded of in Vienna last week